California struggling with growing numbers of elderly inmates

The Associated Press
Monday June 10, 2002

VACAVILLE – Tougher sentences are causing an unusual problem in state prisons – a steep and costly rise in elderly inmates. 

The number of inmates 55 and older has nearly tripled in a dozen years to 5,800, comprising 4 percent of the prison population. 

Prisoners are aging as the state reduces parole and increases sentences, notably through the “three strikes” law that makes repeat offenders eligible for terms of 25 years to life. 

Studies show older inmates are less violent and dangerous, while housing them may cost three times as much as the price of housing younger inmates. 

Health care is a major cost. Last year, the state spent $676 million on inmate medical care, nearly twice the figure of seven years ago. Officials can’t say how much of that went for elderly patients but conceded they are more likely to require expensive care for problems such as cancer and dementia. 

Ernest Pendergrass, 79, serving a life sentence at the Vacaville prison, has survived four types of cancer and a stroke. His daughter, a pharmacist, estimated that his 12 daily pills run $1,800 a month. 

Although California has the nation’s largest and most expensive penal system, with 33 lockups, it does not have a general rule for the handling of elderly inmates, who are mixed in with the regular prison population. 

It has not followed other states such as Louisiana, North Carolina and Ohio in providing special units or entire prisons for the elderly. 

The state did pioneer the concept in 1954 but that prison was later closed. 

Youth and Adult Correctional Secretary Robert Presley said change is “overdue” in how to handle the geriatric population. He told the Los Angeles Times for a story Sunday that he wants to put old inmates in one prison. 

“We’re not talking about mollycoddling prisoners,” said Jonathan Turley, law professor and founder of the Project for Older Prisoners, a national advocacy group that has advised the New York and Illinois penal systems, among others. “It’s a matter of realizing your population is not homogenous and taking steps that can save a lot of money.” 

In addition to being costlier, elderly prisoners can be victims of younger, more aggressive cons, he argued. 

“We all know grandparents who complain they’re afraid to walk at night because of crime,” Turley said. “Imagine being a geriatric in a neighborhood where everyone is certifiably violent.” 

Another option, freeing old inmates, repeatedly has failed to win support. 

Assemblyman John Longville, D-Rialto, sponsored a 1999 bill to shift some inmates over 60 to nursing centers or home detention. It died in the Assembly. 

“A lot of people around here have no interest in letting anybody out of prison,” Longville said. “It’s almost a religious thing. It’s certainly not a pragmatic approach.” 

Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, R-Riverside, opposed the measure. He argued that it might have allowed leniency for convicts such as Sirhan Sirhan, 58, serving a life term for assassinating Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. 

“The thought that when someone reaches a certain age it excuses their previous criminal conduct is anathema to me,” Pacheco said. “It’s wrong morally.” 

National studies show that only about 2 percent of men paroled after 55 return to prison. 

“So the costs of imprisonment go way up at the same time the benefits of imprisonment, in terms of public safety, go way down,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, law school. 

Keeping old cons locked up, he argued, “shouldn’t make us sleep any better at night.”